Past Events and Videos

Many of our events are recorded and our library of videos can be accessed with additional material such as audience Q & A and write ups by Institute members.

For our upcoming events see here.


AIFL Annual Symposium

Date: Thursday 24 September – Friday 25 September 2020


The Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics (AIFL) hosted its Annual Symposium in September 2020. Due to current restrictions, the event was hosted virtually, yet still attracted a vast number of delegates.

The five centres of AIFL showcased the diversity in cutting-edge research taking place. Each of the centres had the opportunity to introduce themselves, their speakers and the exciting research projects their teams are currently working on.

The two-day online event featured numerous presentations and poster sessions from the Institute’s researchers. Throughout, AIFL facilitated rich discussions and created exciting interactions between delegates from law enforcement legal and academic backgrounds. The poster sessions, delivered digitally through a new online environment, allowed attendees to experience the ‘social spaces’ whilst interacting over coffee (albeit homemade!) and discussing the topics raised.

The event was exceptionally well attended with over six hundred delegates from across five continents signing up for the event, and around three hundred delegates attending the busiest session.

Linguistics Approaches to Online Sexual Crime

Date: 6 Mar 2020
Prof Tim Grant and Dr Nicci MacLeod launched their new book 'Language and Online Identities: The Undercover Policing of Internet Sexual Crime.'

Forensic linguistics is at the cutting edge of the undercover policing of child sexual abuse on the open internet and dark web, and language and identity is a fundamental part of this. The authors have drawn on their extensive experience in training undercover officers to develop innovative methods in identifying the creation and performance of online personas, crucial in detecting identity disguise online.

Incorporating the launch book: Grant, T. & MacLeod N. (2020) Language and Online Identities The Undercover Policing of Internet Sexual Crime. CUP

10:00 - 11:00 Dr Nicci MacLeod, Northumbria University. Where it all Began: Linguistic Training for Online Identity Assumption

11:00 - 11:30 Dr Andrea Nini, University of Manchester. Authorship clustering for the dark web: Methodological and theoretical remarks.

11:30 - 12:00 Daniela Schneevogt - AIFL, Aston University. “we were just really in love”: referentiality and clusivity of the pronoun ‘we’ in a Dark Web community of child sex abusers.

12:00 - 1:00 Prof Nuria Lorenzo-Dus, Swansea University.  Developing Resistance against Online Grooming: From Linguistic Analysis to Practice-based Interventions.

2:00 -2:45 Matt Sutton, Senior Manager, National Intelligence Hub (CEOP), National Crime Agency. The linguistic contribution to the investigation of online sexual crime – Operation CACAM, the investigation into Matthew Falder.

2:45 - 3:15 Dr Emily Chiang, AIFL, Aston University, Dr Dong Nguyen, Alan Turing Institute and Prof Jack Grieve, University of Birmingham. Rhetorical analysis of suspected child sexual offenders’ interactions in a dark web image exchange chatroom

3:45 - 4:45 Prof Tim Grant AIFL, Aston University Linguistic. Prof Tim Grant identities: theory and practice in dark web child abuse fora.

4:45 Book launch celebration – with light refreshments.

Abstracts for academic talks

Dr Nicci MacLeod - Northumbria University. Where it all Began: Linguistic Training for Online Identity Assumption

The monograph launched during this event is the end product of almost ten years of involvement in the training of online undercover operatives (UCOs) in the linguistic aspects of identity disguise – a task that is required as part of a wide range of types of investigation, including those into the online sexual abuse and exploitation of children.

This talk tracked the development of linguistic input into this kind of training from the initial discussions and back-of-an-envelope thoughts on what might be the most relevant theories and ideas for trainees all the way through to the theoretically sophisticated approach to identity that has arisen from these research projects. Heeding Robert’s (2003) plea that “the design and implementation of [applied linguistics] research needs to be negotiated from the start with those who may be affected by it”, Nicci described how she worked in close partnership with practitioners in order to ensure the collaborative research was maximally impactful. Drawing on observations of trainee UCOs preparing for a live operation and a series of trials her and her team had run in which trainees had their performances assessed prior to and after linguistic training, Nicci demonstrated the measurable changes that her research and input has made to professional practice.

As well as addressing some stereotyped beliefs about the way particular groups of people use language online, linguistic input based on Nicci and colleagues’ research also raised trainees’ awareness of higher levels of linguistic analysis, such as pragmatics and interactional patterns. Nicci showed this enhanced knowledge being put into practice in a simulated operation carried out by an experienced UCO as part of the project. She concluded with some thoughts on how the work influenced her team’s thinking around language and identity, a theme picked up by Professor Grant in the afternoon session.

Dr Andrea Nini – University of Manchester. Authorship clustering for the dark web: Methodological and theoretical remarks

An important problem in dark web investigations is how to link usernames that belong to the same person in web forums. Combining data that belongs to the same offender can significantly help investigations but often the only evidence available to link usernames is linguistic. In the field of computational authorship analysis, the task of grouping texts in a corpus by authors is called ‘author clustering’ and it relies on cluster analysis techniques using frequency of linguistic items as features. This task is related to ‘authorship verification’, or the task of confirming that a certain text was written by a specific suspect, which is one of the most difficult tasks in authorship analysis. This talk covered the methodological problems in applying these techniques to dark web forum data and propose some theoretical solutions. Andrea included remarks on how studying this problem can shed more light on our understanding of linguistic individuality for forensic linguistics.

Prof Nuria Lorenzo-Dus, Swansea University. Developing Resistance against Online Grooming: From Linguistic Analysis to Practice-based Interventions.

The internet enriches children’s lives, providing learning, creative, entertainment and social opportunities. Yet it has a dark side, too, potentially exposing them to abuse and harm. This includes sexual grooming, known instances of which are increasing rapidly and with many more cases going unreported. Children who have been / are being groomed via the internet may not tell anyone because they feel ashamed or guilty; some may not even realise that they are being groomed given offenders’ manipulative tactics.

How can we better tackle the problem of online child sexual grooming? In this talk, Nuria advocated the importance of understanding both offenders’ linguistic modus operandi and child victims’ discourse within what is essentially a communicative process of entrapment. Firstly, she introduced the data (pseudo- and real- online grooming conversations) and methods (primarily Corpus Linguistics) that over a series of inter-connected studies have enabled the identification of complex communicative patterns within online child sexual grooming. Secondly, she focused on key results regarding offenders’ strategic use of ‘vague language’ and children’s attempts to resist grooming. Finally, Nuria discussed two interventions geared towards combating online child sexual grooming: a hybrid Artificial Intelligence - Corpus Linguistics tool for detecting groomer language and a prevention-oriented training resource for professionals designed to raise their awareness of groomers’ communicative tactics and children’s discourse in response to them. Both interventions are based upon multi-disciplinary academic work, integrating Linguistics, Computer Sciences, Criminology and Public Policy, and are being developed in collaboration with stakeholders, including child protection and law enforcement agencies.

Daniela Schneevogt, Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics. “we were just really in love”: referentiality and clusivity of the pronoun ‘we’ in a Dark Web community of child sex abusers

Criminals use the Dark Web to build networks for conversation and support (Holt et al. 2015). For those with a sexual interest in children, the internet facilitates the abuse of children, the distribution and consumption of illicit imagery and the exchange of ideas and advice (Durkin et al. 2006; Cohen-Almagor 2013; Holt et al. 2015). Such communities create dense linguistic layers of meaning which are difficult to penetrate by persons outside the community. Drawing on Bell’s (1984) notion of audience design, Van Leeuwen’s (2013) social actor framework and Scheibman’s (2004) concept of clusivity, Daniela’s study aimed to investigate how users of a Dark Web child sex abuse forum use the first person plural pronoun ‘we’ by carrying out a two-fold annotation for semantic referents and clusivity. In these texts, first person pronouns are used in a much wider array of contexts than first anticipated. In addition to the well-studied variation in clusivity – that is, differences between exclusive and inclusive referents – large variation across two further axes was identified: group and function. For example, abusers normalise their actions when referring to both a child and a forum user together as ‘we’, portraying children as active and equal partners in those pseudo-intimate relationships. Scheibman’s (2004) clusivity categories are therefore not sufficient in explaining the different pragmatic functions of the pronoun ’we’ in child abuse forum communication. Applications of these findings include online undercover policing, such as infiltration of crime-related fora, as discussed by Grant and MacLeod (2017, 2020).

Dr Emily Chiang, Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Dr Dong Nguyen, Alan Turing Institute, Prof Jack Grieve, University of Birmingham. Rhetorical analysis of suspected child sexual offenders’ interactions in a dark web image exchange chatroom

Child sexual offenders regularly convene in online spaces to exchange illicit imagery and advice about abusive practices (Davidson & Gottschalk, 2011; Westlake & Bouchard, 2016). In response, law enforcement agencies around the world are increasingly deploying undercover officers who pose as offenders to gather intelligence and evidence on offending communities. Currently, however, little is known about how offenders interact online, raising significant questions around how undercover officers should ‘authentically’ portray the child sexual offender. Emily presented a linguistic description of authentic offender-offender interactions taking place on a dark web image exchange chatroom. She analysed the rhetorical moves and strategies of chatroom users and visualise users’ move structures using Markov chains, enabling us to compare the linguistic behaviours of specific user ‘types’. Emily and colleagues found that the predominant moves characterising this chatroom were Offering Indecent Images, Greetings, Image Appreciation, General Rapport and Image Discussion, and that these moves (and others) were employed differently by users of seemingly greater and lesser offending experience. Based on their findings, Emily suggested some practical take-home messages for undercover agents working in this domain.

Prof Tim Grant, Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics. Linguistic identities: theory and practice in dark web child abuse fora

Tim addressed the idea of a linguistic individual, and how as individuals we draw on an array of resources to perform a variety of online identities. In a theoretical aspect of this discussion Tim explored how the resources we draw on enable but also constrain our identity performances and he showed in practical terms how this has two implications for online undercover officers (UCOs). The first implication is that in attempting to perform as another person the most convincing route will be to acquire the resources that a target individual draws on in their identity performances; and that these resources can be identified through a detailed linguistic analysis of chat logs (as demonstrated by Dr MacLeod in the first session). The second implication is that undercover officers need to learn to suppress those resources which they commonly use to perform their everyday identities where these resources are not also shared by the targeted individual. Failure to achieve this suppression of identity resource can lead to the performance of hybrid identities somewhere between the UCO and their target identity. Tim illustrated these points with a series of examples from dataset used in the book he was launching that day, and he concluded by considering next steps in linguistic research in assisting police in the investigation of online sexual crime.

Forensic Linguistics and New Urban Varieties

This event explored the characteristics of linguistic varieties in urban contexts, and their implications for research in Forensics.

Reflections from the event below are by Natascha Rohde, PhD student, Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics.

As one of the big themes within sociolinguistics, (new) urban varieties of language(s) have been observed and studied by many linguists in various different context. However, in the case of forensic linguistics, linguistic variation, especially in multicultural urban contexts bring about new and different questions which this event offered an insight to.

The day started with lexicographer and UBE (Urban British English) expert Tony Thorne from Kings from College London giving an insight into his extensive experience working with police in interpreting drill lyrics and other texts written in UBE. Under the title 'Translating the language of violence: gang slang and Drill lyrics', he gave an overview of the various aspects to consider when dealing with UBE in a forensic or legal context and shared examples from his long-standing career as an expert in urban slang and rap lyrics.

The presentation of the following speaker, Yaron Matras from the University of Manchester focused on the 'Structural and social aspects of cryptolects' and illustrated the many functions cryptolects can take over in their respective communities of practice. Matras emphasized the multidimensionality and complexity of cryptolects, highlighting their role of making everyday conversation inaccessible to people outside the group in order to coordinate logistics of transactions but also how these overlap with ethnolects, illustrated by the example of Shelta, the language of the Irish Traveller Community. While ethnic marginalised minorities use their own variety to flag solidarity and speak in the presence of bystanders and not be understood, their language also serves to aid group bonding, perform identity and talk about taboos in a respectful way, accepted by their community.

He also illustrated the wide range of linguistic features of various cryptolects highlighting that they can be seen  primarily as lexicons rather than fully fledged languages, and symbiotic in nature, meaning they do exist in symbiosis with another language. Using the languages around them, most cryptolects work by manipulating part of the lexicon to make meaning inaccessible, which can be done by semantic extensions, adding or swapping syllables or by using an heritage language, like Irish in the case of Shelta.

The final talk of the day, delivered by Eithne Quinn and Latoya Reisner also from the University of Manchester was titled 'Procedural unfairness and racially loaded misunderstandings in the use of rap lyrics in UK criminal cases' and gave a remarkable insight into how the judicial system utilises drill rap lyrics in their criminal proceedings. They provided a rich account of their experience of how drill lyrics have been used as evidence within the criminal justice system, often without the expert knowledge needed to contextualise and understand them. Showcasing examples of how drill lyrics have been plugged out of their initial textual context, leading to fundamentally changed meaning. Quinn made a convincing argument for how linguistic expertise can help address the inequality of arms, and tackle injustice. They concluded with a call to combat racial injustice within the system by providing expert knowledge to defence council. They argue that this would address the inequality of resources when police and prosecution use drill lyrics as evidence in court to secure a conviction, often using inadequate approaches lacking linguistic expertise, and failing to appropriately contexualise them and possibly prejudicing jurys.

The event was completed by a vivid and inspiring roundtable discussion about the role(s) (forensic) linguists can and should contribute to ensuring fair(er) trials and thereby making a well-founded “attempt to improve the delivery of justice” (Tim Grant) using linguistic methods and expertise.

Researcher and Practitioner Ethics in Forensic Linguistics

Reflections from Dawn Knight, ‘Ethical considerations for corpus construction: a Welsh language case study’ below are by Fiona Klecher, PhD student, Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics.

Dawn Knight discussed the ethical considerations, from data collection through to publication, which affected each stage of creating the open-source CorCenCC corpus, the first national corpus of contemporary spoken, written and digital Welsh. One consideration was explaining the concept of a corpus and gaining informed consent, particularly with children. They were helped in this task by “Cor-pws-the-cat”, the project’s mascot, who was used to explain the idea of ‘sharing words’. 

Some contributors were reluctant to be recorded because of concerns about being identified. Anonymisation is a complicated issue, compounded by the relatively small numbers of Welsh speakers. Even when identifying features such as names and addresses were removed, there were still concerns that people could be ‘re-identified’ through accent, dialect or recognisable situations. Knight questioned whether it is possible to be truly anonymous in a minority language context. This led to an interesting discussion about finding the right balance between protecting contributors’ anonymity, and retaining as much linguistic detail as possible.


How speech alters norms

Date: 25 February 2021

Speaker: Mihaela Popa-Wyatt, ZAS Berlin


In this talk, I explained how social norms are changed by particular kinds of speech, notably, but not only, oppressive speech. I take slurs as a case study and then argue that the mechanism can be extended to other data. The starting point for the mechanism is a speech-act model of slurs (Popa-Wyatt & Wyatt, 2017). This model says that a slur is a move in a conversational game that assigns a low-power role to the target. The new idea in this paper is that we can use game theory to explain how the slur alters the conversational dynamics in a way that also alters social norms. Specifically, I describe the mechanisms by which the low-power conversational role leaks out into the larger social game. As an example, consider a case where a slur is used against a person and this slurring use alters the social norms that are subsequently applied to them by other audience members. My model assumes that a conversational game is embedded in a social game, and argues that a move in the former can change the norms in the latter. Key to this is the idea of a two-way inheritance rule. This rule has an import component and an export component. Conversational roles are typically imported from the social game. Once a low-power role is accommodated in the conversation, it may be exported to the social game, thus changing the norms associated with the corresponding target group. There are several candidate mechanisms for this export rule. I consider these and suggest the mechanism of inferential presupposition has the most explanatory power. I argue that this inferential presupposition shifts norms by changing the social roles associated with the target.

Popa-Wyatt, Mihaela, Wyatt, Jeremy L. (2017), Slurs, Roles and Power, Philosophical Studies 175: 2879-2906.

The domino effect of speakers’ misidentification in transcriptions: critical remarks from a working case

Date: 18 February 2021

Speakers: Chiara Meluzzi and Sonia Ceneschi

In this seminar the speakers presented the results of a technical consultancy carried out for the defense in a case of misidentification of the speaker during preliminary investigations. Using a real case consultancy, the speakers addressed the issues connected with the use of noisy audio of limited duration in forensic settings, and considered the possibilities of cross-disciplinary work by matching linguistic and engineering skills.

Pledging to Harm: A Linguistic Analysis of Violent Intent in Threatening Language

Date: 11 February 2021

Speaker: Marlon Hurt

Legal systems around the world assume that violent intent is not only real, but that it is also detectable in threatening language. However, empirical studies examining how, or even whether, violent intent is encoded in language are rare, and tend to explore the issue primarily through psychological theory. This linguistic analysis hypothesizes that authorial intent is indeed detectable in the language of threats, if only obliquely, because the functional aim of a threat issued with true violent intent is different than one issued for other communicative purposes, e.g., to cause fear. A novel combination of frameworks is employed to test this hypothesis on a dataset of six realized and eight non-realized threats. First, Audience Design Theory and Speech Act Theory delimit the investigation to the most common kind of threatening language, called ‘leakage’ in the threat assessment literature and a ‘pledge to harm’ in Speech Act Theory. Next, the Folk Concept of Intentionality and Biological Naturalism theorize which cognitive elements of intent may be expressed by pledges to harm. Finally, Systemic Functional Linguistics, and the discourse semantic method of Appraisal in particular, identify the various attitudinal and interpersonal meanings in the pledge dataset. Non-realized pledges are discovered to contain significantly more violent ideation, creating a prosody of heightened menace, while the realized pledges are more concerned with ethical evaluations. Hypothetically, these patterns of stance taking show that the non-realized and realized texts are engaged in divergent ‘fields of activity’, that of announcing and explaining respectively. Different communicative purposes point to different psychological intentions spurring the production of each pledge type, potential evidence that violent intent is indeed detectable in the language of pledges to harm.

The Ayia Napa Statements

Date: 4 February 2021

Speaker: Andrea Nini, University of Manchester

Using grammar as a shield in threatening, hateful online communications

Date: 28 January 2021

Speaker: Tanya Karoli-Christensen, University of Copenhagen

Reflections from the event by Felicity Deamer, Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics.  

Tanya’s presentation allowed us to take a step back, and gain some conceptual clarity over harmful forms of speech online. Although the primary focus of the talk was to foreground and tease apart three distinct forms of illegal speech online, Tanya shone the light a little wider, and drew our attention to the psychology of online communication, and how hateful and harmful communication is born out of and allowed to proliferate in the virtual world.

Tanya introduced us to threats, hate speech, and incitement, and showed us how they are closely connected, but also how they come apart, and as such need to be considered separately. Referencing a unique data set of reports of hate speech in Denmark (provided by the Center for Prevention of Exclusion), Tanya picked apart the grammatical profile of a large set of hateful and threatening online communication to reveal specific features, which Tanya argues are suggestive of specific devices being employed by authors of online hate speech, in order to distance themselves from the harm they wish upon their victims (and others by association).

Tanya’s presentation shed light on the form and function of online harmful communications by mapping linguistic analysis onto contemporary thinking surrounding the motivations behind the damaging use of social media platforms.

The use of corpora in many types of forensic linguistic analysis is becoming increasingly commonplace”: A decade on from Cotterill (2010).

Date: 10 December 2020

Speaker: David Wright 

In her excellent chapter on forensic linguistics in O’Keeffe and McCarthy’s Routledge Handbook of Corpus Linguistics, Janet Cotterill (2010) outlines the various ways in which corpora and corpus linguistic methodologies have been (and can be) applied in forensic linguistics. She includes in her discussion the use of already existing general reference corpora by forensic linguists, the building of specialised corpora in forensic contexts and the use of web-as-corpus. The chapter concludes by detailing some challenges of using corpora for forensic purposes and predicting future challenges. This talk revisits Cotterill’s chapter and takes stock of the work that has been done in the ten years since its publication. It considers the potential that has been fulfilled, the opportunities that remain and the new challenges that have emerged in the application of corpus methods in forensic linguistics.

Changing Landscape of Advice Provision: The language of legal advice on social media run by lay advisers

Date: 26 Nov 2020

Speaker: Tatiana Tkacukova, Birmingham City University

In her presentation, Dr Tkacukova conducted a linguistic and socio-legal analysis of online forums for Litigants in Person (People representing themselves in court - LIP). Her study focuses on forums and social media groups run by McKenzie Friends (litigation friends that help people represent themselves in court on a voluntary basis or for a fee - MFs). She uses Corpus Linguistics (Sketch Engine) and a qualitative approach (content analysis) to explore the corpora and LIP’s concerns and advice need. Her study highlighted functions performed by MFs on social media and the quality of MFs’ advice. 

Her interesting quali-quantitative analysis reveals many characteristics that shed lights on positioning of both LIP and MFs. For example, LIP’s subcorpus shows a preponderance of N-gram with negation of abilities or wishes, lack of knowledge… Conversely, MFs use expression of support, certainty, advice etc. MFs’ subcorpus also shows that MFs highlight difficulties of LIPs with legal discourse and construct their professional image by advertising their services and positioning themselves as trusted experts.

Reflections from the event below are by Leigh Harrington, Research Associate, Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics.

This interdisciplinary project focussed on issues of access to justice for the general public, namely legal advice provision on social media. Recent cuts to legal aid in civil and family cases have led to an increase in people representing themselves in court, known as Litigants in Person (LiPs). There has consequently, also been an increased use of alternative sources of DIY law online which legal information and advice, including McKenzie Friends (MFs), lay advisers or litigation friends (mostly without a formal legal background) who provide LiPs with help and support on a voluntary or paid basis.

This talk explored the forums and social media groups ran by MFs where these lay advisers interact with LiPs seeking help. Dr Tkacukova’s data for this study comprised of a corpus of exchanges on these online platforms between these different users. Using a combination of corpus analysis and then content analysis, the talk explored the concerns and advice needs of LiPs and the functions of MFs and the quality of their advice.

Initial corpus analysis of the LiP subcorpus revealed N-grams which negated abilities or wishes, such as lack of knowledge. These highlighted the reduced legal capabilities of LiPs, their potential vulnerability, and need for expert advice. Corpus techniques were also used to define the roles and functions of MFs, which mainly entailed explaining court procedures and the role of social services, setting expectations for LiPs, and advising them. The analysis found that MFs perform these functions services from a closer socially and linguistically defined position than would be expected from legal professionals. Dr Tkaculova showed that whilst MFs construct their professional image as trusted experts and often provide useful procedural information and clarifications, their legal advice is often problematic in terms of its substantive content (it can obstruct justice, mislead, or be technically correct whilst giving unrealistic advice) and linguistic framing (for instance, through defamatory comments).

Dr Tkacukova commented that whilst these lay advice platforms have their advantages, they can also give rise to unfounded trust between users, which can be to the detriment of LiPs who are socially and emotionally vulnerable. She recommended an increase in public awareness of the advantages and limitations/potential risks of MFs, the roles and functions of MFs, and strategies for how to identify biased advice.

Disinformation online: social media users’ motivations for sharing false content

Date: 19 Nov 2020

Speaker: William Dance, Lancaster University

In his presentation, William Dance from Lancaster University discussed social media users’ motivations for sharing false content online. William first explained the difference between disinformation, misinformation, and fake news, arguing that the concept of disinformation can be best defined as intentionally factually incorrect news that is published to deceive and misinform its reader. The second part of the talk introduced the corpus that William built from Tweets containing URLs of disinforming news. Finally, William gave an overview of the semantic fields identified in the corpus and discussed some strategies social media users utilise when sharing disinformation, including concession, dramatic amplification, hypotheticals, presupposition violation, and omission. 

Everybody does things differently: Evidential consistency and the production of official police interview records

Date: 12 Nov 2020

Speaker: Kate Haworth, Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics

This presentation was given to the Preston Linguistics Circle, hosted by UCLAN, at the invitation of Dr Dominik Vajn. It considers a vitally important but generally undervalued aspect of investigative interviewing, namely the process of converting the spoken interview interaction into an institutionally approved, written evidential document. Formal interview records have significant legal standing in the criminal justice system. Around the world, various different approaches are taken to producing them, some significantly more reliable than others. The UK system of routinely audio-recording and transcribing all police-suspect interviews is often regarded as an example of best practice. However, this paper demonstrates that even such an apparently robust method of processing linguistic evidence is still problematic, and argues that contamination and bias are currently institutionally embedded in the system.

The full abstract for the presentation:

This presentation considers a vitally important but generally undervalued aspect of investigative interviewing, namely the process of converting the spoken interview interaction into an institutionally approved, written evidential document. Formal interview records have significant legal standing in the criminal justice system. Around the world, various different approaches are taken to producing them, some significantly more reliable than others. The UK system of routinely audio-recording and transcribing all police-suspect interviews is often regarded as an example of best practice. However, this paper demonstrates that even such an apparently robust method of processing linguistic evidence is still problematic, and argues that contamination and bias are currently institutionally embedded in the system.

I will present the key findings of my research into the production of police interview records in England & Wales, grounded in both academic linguistic theory and professional practice. Uniquely, it includes interviews with interview transcribers at a major English police force, offering a perspective which has hitherto received scant attention, despite the enormous practical impact of their work. Indeed, a key part of this research project is to give voice and recognition to this much under-valued group of workers, whose very existence is often entirely overlooked, yet whose work holds the key to fairer representation of interviewees’ voices in the criminal justice process.

I will show how transcribers deal with aspects known from linguistic research to convey substantial meaning, but for which there are currently no standards regarding their representation in official transcripts. These include pauses, discourse markers, ‘no comment’ interviews, and transcription of video-recorded data. This is combined with linguistic analysis of authentic interviews and their official transcripts, and legal analysis of potential consequences in court of the representational choices which transcribers are tasked with making on a daily basis.

The presentation will conclude with practical recommendations as to how to improve evidential consistency in investigative interview data, thereby setting out a manifesto for the new centre for Spoken Interaction in Legal Contexts (SILC) within Aston’s Institute for Forensic Linguistics.

How will your emergency be interpreted?

Date: 13 Nov 2020

Speaker: Joanne Traynor, Anglia Ruskin University

In this presentation, Joanne Traynor, a PhD student at Anglia Ruskin University presented her work exploring the factors which may influence communications officers as they code and interpret police incident logs. Her experience of working in this context, combined with her mixed method approach made for an extremely insightful presentation.

Joanne seeks to bring voice to the communications officers, highlighting how linguistic focus in this area – often undertaken by Conversation Analysts – does not examine how communications officers perform and interpret their role outside of the telephone calls in the police control room. 

Discursive orientations towards age in police interviews with 17- and 18-year-old suspects

Date: 8 Oct 2020

Speaker: Dr Annina Heini

This presentation was based on Annie’s recently completed PhD research, which investigated discursive manifestations of the statutory child-adult divide in police interviews with 17- and 18year-old suspects. In the context of her police interview research, Annie is particularly interested in language ideologies in connection with age, the administration of the police caution, and the discursive role of appropriate adults in interviews with vulnerable suspects.

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Police interviewing between guidance, training, and 'as it happens': Insights from conversation analysis

Date: 27 Feb 2020

Speaker: Liz Stokoe & Charles Antaki, Loughborough University

In this presentation, Liz described her collaborative research that, across multiple institutional settings, shows how written guidance, standardized scripts and protocols are actually turned into talk. Shed analysed multiple datasets including police interviews with alleged suspects and victims, crisis negotiations, doctor-patient interaction, and simulated client/mystery shopper encounters. She showed that a) the empirical reality of apparently scripted talk often differs wildly, and consequentially, from the script or guidance and b) effective practice that can be identified by conversation analysis seldom finds its way into guidance. She discussed the ethical and epistemic implications of simply not knowing how apparently guided, scripted, standardized is manifested in real talk.

I could kill them, I said. I didn’t say I would’: Threats on trial – the role of intent in cases involving threatening communications

Date: 13 Feb 2020

Speaker: Marie Bojsen-Møller, PhD fellow, Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics, University of Copenhagen, Denmark


Threats constitute what may be termed an illicit genre (Bojsen-Møller, Auken, Devitt & Christensen, 2019),, since they are often socially and sometimes legally proscribed (Fraser 1998; Gales 2010; Muschalik 2018). The (il)legality of a threat is dependent on legislation (Solan & Tiersma 2005), and, notably, on the emphasis legislation and precedent have placed on threateners’ intent.

However, being ultimately a psychological state, the intent is notoriously difficult to assess (cf. Hurt & Grant 2018), and in court, defendants may claim that they never intended to threaten. Furthermore, they can use more or less persuasive linguistic strategies to distance themselves from the language crime they are accused of committing, particularly if the wording of the threat was indirect. Indirect threats are particularly difficult to prosecute and penalize, since reasonable doubt may be raised regarding their intended meaning, possibly allowing the sender a recourse to ‘plausible deniability’ (Solan & Tiersma 2005).

In this seminar, Marie Bojsen-Møller discusses her new paper, which takes its starting point by comparing the role of ‘intent’ (mens rea) in Danish, UK and US legislation or case law on threats:

  • Danish Criminal Code, § 266
  • British Offences Against the Person Act 1861, Section 16
  • US ‘true threat’ case law: e.g. Watts v. United States 1969; Elonis v. United States 2015; Perez v. Florida 2017).

Bojsen-Møller further examines several Danish court cases which have threatening messages at the heart of the cases and focuses on the appeals to defendants’ intent as argued by prosecutors, defence lawyers, defendants and judges.

Q&A with Marie Bojsen-Møller

1. Is there a specific threat letter or message you came across during your research that really stood out to you? And why?

I would say the teenage girl who on Instagram wrote “I’ll be the next school shooter LMAO watch out”. That was one of the threats that stuck with me the most because there is an aspect of youth, just trying to test the limits of discourse. It’s difficult to say what their purpose really was, if it was just to be a part of a group that has a very extreme way of talking to each other or if it was the beginning of thoughts about actually doing a school shooting. We don’t know, and that really interests me because a lot is at stake. It’s the difference between ignoring someone who’s going to kill people or over-reacting and maybe creating people who are angrier because she must be angrier now that she has been in jail for a long time and she was kicked out of her high school and so on. So yeah, there’s a lot at stake. There’s a lot on the line.

2. In your opinion, what is one of the most common misconceptions laypeople (in DK) have about threats and threatening communications?

People misconceive threats, believing that the only force they have is the potential of something else happening, which is the thing they are threatening to do. Threats in themselves are also an act of violence, a linguistic act of violence. I think that’s very important to understand because it underlines a very basic thought in linguistics, that languages act. It’s not something abstract where you don’t do anything. That’s why I like to show these examples where people say “I didn’t do anything” and they did. I’m not saying they were going to do something else, but they did try to intimidate someone and that’s a crime in itself in many countries.

3. Are lawyers in DK aware of the work forensic linguists do and its benefits for the legal system?

No, not at all. Lawyers know a lot about language, we just know other aspects of it, and it’s difficult for them to understand. It’s not the same as saying that we know more about how to do a proper cross-examination or something; It’s more something about analysing the ways that language works.

Devoted Users – the 2019 EU elections and gamification on Twitter

Date: 6 Feb 2020

Speaker: Francesco Grisolia, University of Pisa

Hybrid political campaigns can be influenced by gamification strategies, that is the use of video game elements in non-gaming domains. In recent years, gamification has been applied to the realm of politics with the intended goal of increasing voter engagement and citizens’ participation.

In Francesco’s talk, he presented the results of collaborative research on the last EU elections campaign in the Italian Twittersphere. He focused on the online activity of Matteo Salvini, former Italian Interior Minister and leader of the League (Lega), and a specific social media contest, Vinci Salvini! (“Win Salvini!”), whose second edition was launched three weeks before the 2019 EU Elections.

He discussed the impact of such gamification strategy, clarifying how it increased the volume of Salvini’s retweeted tweets and, in turn, his message visibility. Francesco identified a small but particularly active group of suspect users, which he labelled as devotees for their commitment and intense retweeting activity in the run-up to the elections. They share some characteristics (account creation date, type and amount of followers and friends, etc.) and, most fundamentally, reveal an ambivalent nature. On the one hand, they show a quasi-automated behaviour, systematically liking and retweeting any content shared by Salvini. On the other hand, they manifest distinctive human features (type of replies). Being driven by political affinity and the potential reward of a social media contest, we think they represent a peculiar type of crowdsourced political agents.

Rhetorical moves, online grooming and the performance of offenderness

Date: 30 Jan 2020

Speaker: Emily Chiang, Aston University

One of the most unfortunate consequences of the internet is that child sexual abusers have various online channels through which to communicate with victims and other offenders. Emily’s talk demonstrated the use of move analysis (Swales, 1981; 1990) as applied to two types of online child abuse interaction and how it might assist in online police investigations. Emily first considered offenders' moves in 'grooming' conversations, revealing patterns in move use, which pointed to individual ‘styles’ of grooming. Secondly, she focused on interactions between suspected offenders and undercover police officers posing as offenders, showing how interactants' moves work towards the performance of the offender identity, and how this performance compares across the two groups.

Non-Violent Direct Action and the Courts: Necessity, Remorse, and the Right to Protest

Date: 23 Jan 2020

Speaker: Graeme Hayes 

The criminal trials of direct action protesters are in many ways extraordinary episodes within the criminal justice process. Here, the protection of philosophical belief required by the ECHR and Human Rights Act 1998 vouchsafe the sincerity of the defendants’ commitment: as a result, remorse displays are not central to mitigation decisions, while defendants may seek to justify their actions through pleas of necessity. 

Yet socio-legal discussion of these issues is often absent, and discussion of necessity are characteristically highly normative; whilst practical questions of the protection of philosophical belief at trial typically focus on sentencing, at the expense of a focus on the conduct of the trials themselves. Graeme used a forensic sociology lens to the trials of activists, to discuss how justification and excuse, remorse and recidivism are constructed, and how processes of separation and remediation are performed and imposed in the courtroom space. He applied this lens to two recent high profile activist trials in the English courts: the trial of the Stansted 15 and the appeal trial of the Frack Free Three. In both cases, the charges brought against the activists were much more severe than those typically experienced by non-violent direct action protesters. Yet, both ultimately resulted in lenient sentencing, thus apparently upholding ECHR-protected rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Through ethnographic observation and discussion of legal decisions, he argued however that the conditions and conduct of these trials, particularly concerning questions of remorse, necessity, duress, and good character, effectively serve to narrow rather than uphold the expression of Convention freedoms. Specifically, he argued that the emphasis on remorse in the Frack Free Three ruling, and the interpretation of necessity as duress (and its subsequent effective unavailability) in the Stansted trial effectively forces activists to divest their political beliefs as a cost of securing their liberty. As such, he argued that these prosecutions and the terms of their outcomes should be considered serious acts of the chilling of dissent.